Attack on the Leisure Society

Gerhard Schroeder has faced an uphill battle selling his economic reforms
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has had difficulty selling his “Agenda 2010” to the German public (Photo: Michael Urban/AFP).

On April 30, Die Zeit published a caricature on its front page of an eagle, Germany’s emblem, vigorously tightening its belt. Germans are confronted by the unpleasant reality that the times of abundance are over. “We are disgruntled and sick of politicians,” wrote Michael Naumann in the same paper (May 8). “Germans are puzzled by the need for social reforms…. Everything is too complicated. Germany resembles a watch factory where nobody knows how to fix a complex clock mechanism. A hammer won’t be of any help. Half the nation is searching in vain for the light at the end of the tunnel. It sees its future as a deep, black hole.”

The reason behind this fear is Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s audacious plan for sweeping labor reforms, announced on March 12. He proposes a noncompromising rollback of the country’s cozy welfare-pension systems.

It’s about time, proclaimed Bernd Ziesemer in Handelsblatt (April 25), equating Germany’s social system with “the one that was in place during Bismarck’s good old times. This only proves that our democracy has failed.”

The plan, Schröder’s “Agenda 2010,” will raise the pension age, restrict health benefits, cut public services, scale back unemployment payments from 32 to 12 months, and loosen Germany’s rigid job protection—in the hope of reviving the paralyzed economy. Germany’s comfortable leisure culture is at stake—undermined by flagging growth and a stagnating unemployment rate, which will reach the 5-million mark by the end of the year.

As expected, the taboo-breaking “Agenda” was met with massive criticism from factions in Schröder’s party, the Social Democrats (SPD). Germany’s vociferous and powerful trade unions—the bedrock of the SPD, which made the chancellor’s narrow re-election last year possible—rebelled; millions of workers took to the streets on May 1. “For the first time in our history, the workers’ day was thrown in the face of the SPD,” observed Rheinische Post in an editorial (May 1). “But May 1 may be a chance for Schröder: He can emancipate his party from the suffocating grip of the unions and give his government a bold, new, and proper direction.”

“The country has lived beyond its means,” read an editorial in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (May 1), But the paper called the proposed reforms “modest at best.” The Aachener Zeitung flatly dismissed Schröder’s plan (May 8): “The bombastic sounding ‘Agenda 2010’ is only the beginning of a tiny reform. It is a tepid breeze rather than a strong wind that would inject this country with oxygen and push out the fog of the naysayers. Something is foul in a country where the chancellor has to threaten his party members with resignation to push through necessary reforms.”

On June 1, the agenda will face a vote at a special SPD Party conference in Berlin, and the chancellor regards its success as a litmus test for his own political survival and for the SPD’s capability to govern in the coming decade. But the plan is likely to be endorsed by the party members and might just have a chance to succeed: The most radical social changes in other European countries—in Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark—were all undertaken in a time of economic crisis. But will the agenda be sweeping enough to last? “The government will have to persuade a socially spoiled population to tighten its belt,” remarked Die Welt in an editorial (May 12). “Germans have to lend a hand, as was expected of them in the 1950s and ’60s.… That won’t be easy and can be achieved only with courage and a clear concept in mind. Both are missing.”

Last year Germany had the slowest growth, 0.2 percent, of the 12 countries in the euro-zone and one of the highest unemployment rates in the developed world. It is trapped in the longest recession period in its history. “Our country is in bad shape,” commented Josef Joffe in Die Zeit (April 24). “We are lacking the culture of change.… In the first part of the 20th century, we experienced change as traumatic. No wonder that our favorite word is consistency.… But looking in from the outside, we seem like a contented lot.… We are incredibly rich. Those less fortunate receive unemployment benefits for 32 months. Social aid reaches the heights of which a dual-income family in the United Sates and Britain can only dream of…. But the politician who demands sacrifice has to offer a political vision. Otherwise, the people will only complain: ‘tighten the belt? Not us!’ ”

Critics argue that Schröder’s sledgehammer approach is either too little too late or will do more harm than good for a society that clings to its undisputed comfort and ease. “The German economy resembles a heart patient,” economist Peter Bofinger explained in Die Zeit (April 30). “A responsible doctor would first revive him, strengthen his system, and then urge him to lead a healthier life. Doctor Schröder, on the other hand, orders him to climb on the treadmill. No wonder the patient doesn’t get better.” And Heribert Prantl, writing for Süddeutsche Zeitung, summarized in a front-page article (April 19): “The social system has always been the guarantor for peace in this country….It has been the foundation of our prosperity. The attempt to abandon the social state will kill internal peace. But leaving things the way they are will destroy our peace of mind…. Patchwork won’t do…. A lot has to change for the social state to stay what it is meant to be: our home.”

A truncated version of this story appeared in the July 2003 issue of World Press Review.